By Chuck Keith
The other day I was surfing the Internet, when I happened upon an article on BBC.com titled “The Ten Ages of Christmas”. Being an American and naturally curious (thanks Mark Twain!) I began to read the article and stumbled upon a section labeled Twelfth Night under the Georgian and Regency period along with a picture of a sumptuous “Twelfth Cake” which was apparently popular during this era.
Dreams of confectionary indulgence aside, I began to think of the Shakespeare comedy “Twelfth Night”. I have been a part of two local productions of “Twelfth Night”. One with Raleigh Little Theatre in 2006 and the other for Bare Theatre in 2007. My brain foggily recollected that the phrase twelfth night had something to do with Christmas. I’ve heard the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” my whole life and it’s way too many variations, but that was about it, so I decided to do a little digging and see what this holiday was all about.
Twelfth Night also known as Epiphany or Three Kings day has it’s roots in the Eastern Church and celebrated as the day Jesus was baptized, but in the Western tradition it is the day that the baby Jesus was visited by the three Magi (kings/wise men), Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, representing Arabia, Europe, and Africa respectively. In 567, the Council of Tours decided that the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany should be celebrated and after giving each other pear trees with partridges stuck in them the deal was sealed. During Elizabethan times, this feast day was a day of revelry (did they have a holiday that wasn’t?) and misrule was the name of the game with such things as excessive eating and drinking (the lords a leaping and ladies dancing were to shed those extra pounds), plus role reversal with the nobles becoming peasants and vice-versa (perhaps kindred to Boxing Day in Victorian England when masters would serve their servants a meal). Counting out the twelve days puts Twelfth Night on January 6, right? Some sources state that it is actually January 5, but when I count on my fingers that would be Eleventh night. (This reminds me of the scene in Duck Soup. Grouch says, “Give him 12 years in Leavenworth, or 11 years in Twelve-worth” to which Chico replies, “I’ll take 5 to 10 at Woolworths).
The antics of Shakespeare’s play seem to fit this time of wassailing and thus the title “Twelfth Night “ is appropriate. We certainly see things in Illyria go topsy-turvy, Viola disguises herself as a man and becomes Cesario who falls in love with her master Orsino, who sends her to woo the mournful Olivia on his behalf who in turn is smitten with Cesario not knowing that he is a she. Malvolio falls from his high perch due to the scheme designed by Olivia’s maiden Maria, and is further vexed in prison by the clown Feste disguised as the curate Sir Topas (the first but not the last time that yellow stockings cross-gartered caused the downfall of a man). So that sums of Twelfth Night and the play which bears it’s name and all is well except that “Twelfth Night” is also known as “What You Will”.
So why would a play have two titles? The simplest answer is usually the best. Perhaps the Bard couldn’t settle on one or maybe it was a marketing ploy, but then what if it was something more subversive? England under Elizabeth I was Protestant, the country having left the Catholic Church during the reign of her father, Henry VIII. Many English persons though still held allegiance to the “old faith” albeit in secret and it is rumored that one of these persons was William Shakespeare. In Act 1 Scene III of “Twelfth Night” the Clown (Feste) invokes Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin and thus Jesus’ me-maw and a Catholic saint. She is also an Anglican saint and an Episcopalian saint, so this is not so out of the ordinary. But what about the exchange between Cesario (Viola) and the Clown (Feste) in Act III Scene I:
Save thee, friend, and thy music: dost though live by thy tabour?
No, sir, I live by the church.
Art thou a churchman?
No such matter, sir: I do live by the church: for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.
So thou mayst say the king lies by a beggar, if a beggar dwell near him: or, the church stands by thy tabour, if thy tabour stand by the church.
You have said, sir. To see this age! A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit: how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!
Shakespeare was a master wit, and if he did want to use cunning wordplay for a shout out to the secret Catholics among his audience, he could do it. Remember this is a man who wrote Richard II, a play about a deposed monarch, a delicate subject indeed during Elizabethan rule. Suffice to say this is mere speculation and I will leave it to the reader to arrive at his or her own judgment.
Any etymological conspiracy aside, “Twelfth Night” is one of Shakespeare’s more popular comedies. The holiday Twelfth Night is still celebrated, whether actively though practice or sublimely through song. Just as madness ensues in the play we can all appreciate the madness that ensues during the holiday season. Hopefully, just like in Illyria, everything will wrap up nicely for you in Act V!
– Chuck Keith is a company member of Bare Theatre who lives in Raleigh. He has performed in and written several plays, and his short play “Love and Taxes” will be featured in Cary Players’ Love Bits & Bites in February 2015.
Lalumina, Christina. “Ten Ages of Christmas.” BBC.com, 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 3 Jan. 2015
Locklear, Scott. “Twelfth Night.” Enotes.com, n.d. Web. 3 Jan. 2015.
“Twelfth Night.” MIT, n.d. Web. 3 Jan. 2015
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Twelfth Night.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2003. Web. 3 Jan. 2015
Sheets, Connor. “When Is Three Kings’ Day? Facts, History of the January 6 Holiday.” Ibittimes.com, 2 Jan. 2015. Web. 3 Jan. 2015.
“When Is Twelfth Night? When Should the Christmas Tree and Decorations Come Down?” Plymouthhearald.co.uk, 3 Jan. 2015. Web. 3 Jan. 2015.
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